- Whit Sheppard
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PARIS -- Imagine you've just finished four years of medical school, done some post-doctoral clinical work and then successfully completed a five-year surgical residency before starting your own surgical practice with a partner. Think "Nip/Tuck."
All the hard work has paid off handsomely; the splendor of the professional path ahead of you is matched only by the extent of the sacrifices you made to get there. The first few years sail by uneventfully; the sense of purpose and usefulness you feel in your work is palpable every day.
Then, suddenly you notice a tremor in your right hand, the one with which you employ a scalpel so expertly. "I might have had an extra drink last night, you think to yourself. I'm just a bit run down. It's probably nothing at all."
A few days later the tremor is back, it's more pronounced, and the room starts to spin. Two weeks later, it's a chore just to get out of bed in the morning, the fatigue is so debilitating. The occasional tremor has advanced into a continual presence, akin to the cursor on your computer screen going on the fritz and moving without your consent. Continuing to perform surgery on others is now out of the question; the only question is whether you'll be the one getting operated on.
For 25-year-old Australian tennis player Alicia Molik, that sort of doomsday scenario rings all too true. She'd won a bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics and then played the Grand Slam of her life at the 2005 Australian Open, upsetting Venus Williams in the fourth round before falling to Lindsay Davenport 9-7 in the third set of their quarterfinal match. Her world ranking had climbed to a career-high No. 8 and her powerful build and imposing strokes seemed poised to propel her further up the rankings ladder.
Several weeks later, though, during the Nasdaq-100 Open in Miami, Molik woke up one morning feeling strange. Her balance was off and objects in her hotel room appeared to be moving slightly up and down. She knew that the objects were fixed, immovable, but still, it was difficult to believe the problem might lie within her. She decided that maybe it was her blood-sugar level speaking or just more of the fatigue she'd been feeling recently in her whirlwind existence as a well-traveled professional athlete.
A few weeks later, the symptoms reappeared, this time in Charleston, S.C., in preparations for the Family Circle Cup. This time the symptoms showed themselves on-court as well. Warming up with her coach, David Taylor, before the tournament, she started spraying errant volleys all over the court and even completely whiffed on a ball. Something was clearly wrong.
Molik pulled out of the tournament and flew back home to Australia, bewildered and discouraged. Scared. She'd been playing regularly on tour since 1999, when she was 18. Tennis was all she knew.
Back home in Adelaide, where she'd grown up playing with Lleyton Hewitt and his sister Jaslyn, she made the rounds of doctors and received differing thoughts on what might be ailing her. Hay fever was one possibility, a straight case of vertigo another. After a series of CT scans and MRIs, doctors were able to diagnose accurately a case of vestibular neuronitis, also called vestibular neuritis.
A medical textbook would tell you that vestibular neuronitis is an acute, sustained dysfunction of the peripheral vestibular system, manifesting in a sudden disruption of neuronal input. The end result is vertigo-like symptoms, the kiss of athletic death for people who make their living making finely calibrated, split-second decisions with a tennis ball hurtling toward them at speeds up to 130 m.p.h.
Molik has little firm idea of how the virus took root but thinks it might have had something to do with cramming too much travel, practice and play into her schedule.
"There was no telltale sign, you know," she said. "I'm not a doctor, but the only thing I can think of is that I had a lot of success in quite a concentrated period of time. I played really well in the States and in Europe and then I did fantastically well over the Australian summer.
"It was a lot of tennis, a lot of pressure, a lot of energy output over a short period of time, and I guess when your body's on the edge all the time ... I think I was running on adrenaline a lot of that time," she said.
Her friend and Fed Cup teammate Nicole Pratt said, "She was riding high, in the top 10, and what happened to her was really sad for everyone. She's not back to where she was but she's progressing."
Molik thinks she could have been more judicious in her selection of tournaments to play in but certainly wasn't the first player or blackjack aficionado to succumb to a sort of competitive greed and try to ride a hot streak as long as possible.
"I played a number of tournaments after the summer when probably the right thing to do was to pull back. But it's always difficult to pull back when you're successful, when you're doing well," Molik said. "You want to play more.
"Something that I've learned now is to maybe take a step back when I've had a good week instead of playing a couple of weeks before, then having a rest," she said.
Five months ago, she decided to take a big step back and officially take a hiatus from the tour.
"I wrote the year off in January," she said, adding she was planning a comeback this winter.
So instead of thrilling her home fans on the court at the 2006 Australian Open, she provided commentary for the couch-bound on Australian television. She acquitted herself well in her new role, her naturally low-key style and keen insight into the game translating smoothly into the TV booth.
While 11-time Grand Slam winner Bjorn Borg was seemingly content to retire at the height of his powers at 25, Molik showed no inclination to segue permanently into broadcast work. Her competitiveness wouldn't allow her to go away so quietly.
"I guess she just has that great Aussie fighting spirit, where anything is possible through hard work," said Taylor, who doubles as the coach of the Australian Fed Cup team. "Her strength and attitude are big plusses for her."
When her symptoms, which can't be treated with traditional drug therapy, faded away as February gave way to March, there was little question of what Molik would do with her reprieve.
"Put it this way," she said. "I've never played for money. Maybe that's why I am still playing tennis. I wouldn't be out there if I thought that [regaining a place in the top 10] was way beyond me. I enjoyed it very much at that level and if I didn't think I could get back there, I wouldn't bother picking up a racket.
"The truth in the matter is that I had a lot of success but there were still other things that I wanted to achieve. I felt like I did great, made it to No. 8 in the world. But you know what? I could have done a lot better than that, too," she said.
So she started practicing again, re-enlisted the help of Taylor, who'd been working with Russian Maria Kirilenko while Molik was sidelined, and started the long climb back.
"Alicia still has a long road ahead of her to be playing again at the level she is capable of," Taylor said. "Winning her first match in a Grand Slam here [in Paris] since beating Venus in Australia in 2005 has definitely accelerated her comeback. She wasn't even playing three months ago, so she is showing huge progression, even since Rome two weeks ago."
Molik won one of the French Open wild cards given to Tennis Australia by beating countrywoman Sophie Ferguson last week in a playoff at Roland Garros. She had only played in three Tour-level matches, all losses, since that loss to Davenport 18 months ago. But those results the past four weeks in Gifu (Japan), Rome and Istanbul weren't enough to discourage her, though her ranking had dropped all the way to No. 489, coming into the year's second Grand Slam.
So far she has been successful through two rounds. Molik had a straight-sets win over Antonella Serra-Zanetti of Italy in her opening match and on Wednesday overcame Romanian Anda Perianu, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3. She's now got a ticket to play No. 4 Maria Sharapova in the third round Friday.
Regardless of how she fares in Paris, Molik is simply happy to be doing what she loves to do once again.
"There hasn't been much to celebrate the past 18 months," she said with a smile after her first-round win. "It's a process to get back to playing the way I was 18 months ago. It's more about goals than results and dealing with competition again.
"I can't put a time frame on it. I've never done it before. But getting a win today has really speeded up my recovery," she said.
Surprisingly, she doesn't spend much time worrying about whether her symptoms will recur and once again derail her dreams.
"The reason I'm feeling better is that my body, my brain and my middle ear have learned to adapt to the deficit that I had in my middle ear, and I've made up for that in my vision and motor movements and all of that," she said. "So I don't believe that it's something that can recur at all."
Fed Cup teammate Pratt is just one of many pulling for Molik to make it all the way back.
"She's an inspiration to everyone, coming back," Pratt said. "She knows it's a long road ahead but, hopefully, the bad luck that's come her way will turn into some good luck."
Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering the French Open and Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at email@example.com.
Alicia Molik's tennis career was put on hold after a vertigo-like condition. The scary part is that she does not know where it stems from, but her comeback has been an inspiration.